Gender Differences in Depression

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CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE

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Gender Differences in Depression
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema1
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Abstract From early adolescence through adulthood, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Many different explanations for this gender difference in depression have been offered, but none seems to fully explain it. Recent research has focused on gender differences in stress responses, and in exposure to certain stressors. I review this research and describe how gender differences in stress experiences and stress reactivity may interact to create women’s greater vulnerability to depression. Keywords gender; depression; stress

Across many nations, cultures, and ethnicities, women are about twice as likely as men to develop depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Weissman et al., 1996). This is true whether depression is indexed as a diagnosed mental disorder or as subclinical symptoms. Diagnosable depressive disorders are extraordinarily common in women, who have a lifetime prevalence for major depressive disorder of 21.3%, compared with 12.7% in men (Kessler, McGonagle, Swartz, Blazer, & Nelson, 1993). Most explanations for the gender difference in depression have focused on individual variables, and studies have attempted to show that one variable is better than another in explaining the difference. In three decades of research, however, no one variable

has single-handedly accounted for the gender difference in depression. In recent years, investigators have moved toward more integrated models, taking a transactional, developmental approach. Transactional models are appropriate because it is clear that depression impairs social and occupational functioning, and thus can have a major impact on an individual’s environment. Developmental models are appropriate because age groups differ markedly in the gender difference in depression. Girls are no more likely than boys to evidence depression in childhood, but by about age 13, girls’ rates of depression begin to increase sharply, whereas boys’ rates of depression remain low, and may even decrease. By late adolescence, girls are twice as likely as boys to be depressed, and this gender ratio remains more or less the same throughout adulthood. The absolute rates of depression in women and men vary substantially across the life span, however. In this review, I focus on two themes in recent research. First, because women have less power and status than men in most societies, they experience certain traumas, particularly sexual abuse, more often than men. They also experience more chronic strains, such as poverty, harassment, lack of respect, and constrained choices. Second, even when women and men experience the same stressors, women may be more likely than men to develop depression because of gender differences in biological responses to stressors, self-concepts, or coping styles. Frequent stressful experiences and reactivity to stress are likely to

have reciprocal effects on each other. Stressful experiences can sensitize both biological and psychological systems to future stress, making it more likely that individuals will react with depression. In turn, reactivity to stress is associated with impaired problem solving, and, as a result, with the accumulation or generation of new stressors, which may contribute to more depression.

STRESSFUL LIFE EVENTS Women’s lack of social power makes them more vulnerable than men to specific major traumas, particularly sexual abuse. Traumas may contribute directly to depression, by making women feel they are helpless to control their lives, and may also contribute indirectly, by increasing women’s reactivity to stress. Women’s social roles also carry a number of chronic strains that might contribute directly or indirectly to depression. Major changes in the frequency of traumatic events and in social roles coincide with the emergence of...
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